Q&A: ‘Passages’ filmmaker Ira Sachs opens up about his ‘personal film’

Ira Sach's "Passages" is at the IFC Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Ira Sach’s “Passages” is at the IFC Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

“Passages” is a striking drama by out gay director Ira Sachs (“Keep the Lights On”), a master of depicting codependent relationships. Tomas (Franz Rogowski) is a self-involved filmmaker who knows what he wants on set, but in real life, he is more impulsive and lost. With his marriage to Martin (Ben Whishaw) feeling stale, Tomas finds excitement sleeping with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos) at a wrap party for his latest film. 

Martin is, of course, discouraged by this development, but he also knows Tomas well, and how the filmmaker’s extreme mood swings dictate his heedless behavior. A stunning moment has Tomas telling Martin to be happy for him regarding his new relationship, with Martin smartly responding, “You can pursue anything that excites you, but you can’t dictate how I feel.” 

After Tomas decides to leave Martin and move in with Agathe — whom he says he loves — both of Tomas’ lovers are tested. Sachs shows the strengths and weaknesses of all three protagonists as they grapple with their complicated and ever-changing emotions. 

Sachs spoke with Gay City News about “Passages,” his shrewd and exacting study of amour fou.

“Passages” depicts a transitional moment that provides huge drama in the lives of its protagonist and his lovers. What inspired you to tell this story? 

It’s a personal film, but it’s really not an autobiographical film. My life is less dramatic, and I think more full of love than these characters who are a generation younger than me. In some ways, it represents the pain of being in the middle of your life when you really haven’t made certain choices about what makes you happy and the people around you happy. What inspired the film was watching Visconti’s “The Innocent” and finding myself extremely, erotically attracted to Laura Antonelli as well as Giancarlo Giannini. Both of them are so beautiful. I felt a kind of lust for Laura Antonelli that was interesting. Here I was, someone who had lived his 50-plus years as a gay man, and who’s to say I’m not going to meet a woman and start a torrid affair and my life is going to change? It is possible for a life to change at any moment, and that to me was the trigger— how does change happen? And where do we go from there? What inspired me to make the film was a shift in my own imagination of my identity becoming insignificant. 

Tomas is not a very likable character, but he is a fascinating protagonist. He is selfish, and self-involved. He says things and behaves in ways that express his own discomfort and dissatisfaction and that only make him behave more badly. What decisions did you make in creating his character? 

I knew how terribly charismatic and watchable and lovable Franz Rogowski is. He is a force of nature and a force of cinema. Franz and I loved Tomas while making this movie because both the character and actor are so free. Freedom is really attractive. It can be dangerous, because there is no sense of consequence. But it is also very cinematic and pleasurable. We talked about James Cagney, who loved to play sociopaths. The film a takedown of men in power. It’s men behaving badly, and a self-destruction of that man. 

The film is very much about control. Tomas thinks he has it — he tries to direct his lovers like he directs a film — but he encounters resistance from Martin, whom he thinks is pliable, as well as Agathe, who sizes him up pretty quickly. What observations do you have about the central love triangle and Tomas’s sexual fluidity? 

To me, the triangle is particularly dramatic because it’s three people who all want something they cannot have… and that pursuit creates the tension in the film because they are caught between what they have and what they want. That’s the space the audience connects to. There is also the question of who has power? It shifts throughout the movie. You have two men who invite a woman into their house and into their family, but without care and with a lot of disregard. To me there was an exploration of gay men and the relationship we have with women in our lives and culture. There is a way that Agathe seems disposable. There’s no one who is not culpable in the film. 

How did you approach the film visually? There is fluid camerawork, and you create a real intimacy in various scenes. For a film that is very much character driven, you immerse viewers in their lives and world, and we sit with them. Can you talk about that process or technique? 

I know that a film is made up of images that, if successful, impact the audience in ways that cannot be spoken. It is not truly a film of dialogue, or a film of story, it’s a film of feeling. Sometimes the image is what conveys the feeling most powerfully to an audience. As a director, you are trying to balance storytelling and what I consider a more impressionist impact.  I’m working in a medium of image and sound, and how can I use those things to knock you out or give you pleasure? These are things that are central to my mission, which is to give pleasure. 

The film was slapped with an NC-17 rating because of a particular sex scene. Do you think it is because it was a gay sex scene? I appreciate that you won’t edit the film to adjust the rating. Can you talk about this? 

These kinds of [rating] systems are in place to repress creativity and repress freedom. They are not to defend the audience, but to let the filmmakers know there is an idea of what is acceptable and not acceptable. I would like to be a pre-code filmmaker—because those are the movies that I love. They are not movies made under watch of the Hayes Bureau or the MPAA who are a bunch of regressive pro-violence individuals who are nameless and exist in a body without form. To me, that is too much like “1984” for my taste.

This film was given a 12+ rating in Spain. It’s not forbidden for anyone to see the film, it is suggested that people be 12 and over. But somehow, in America, no one under 18 is allowed in the cinema. Secondly, “Love is Strange” was given an R rating. To me, that says everything about the limits and reactionary boundaries of the MPAA. It’s an unfortunate system. 

I felt it was helpful for me to watch films made at a different time periods than now. There is this idea that progress goes in one direction, and we become more free as gay people and we are living in a better time, and in some way that’s true. In many ways, in terms of the imagery we create, that’s not true. I need to see Pasolini movies, and “Taxi Zum Klo,” and Chantal Ackerman, because these people remind me that you are allowed to shoot gay people being gay. 

How did this film allow you to grow as a filmmaker?

This was a film in which my craft caught up with my instincts. I felt like the instincts about how to tell a story were ones that I’ve had since I started out, but I feel like I have matured in my ability to do it with confidence and ease. It felt like a new chapter.

This is also a film you made in Europe. Why is this a European story, even though it is in English?

It’s a story that is set in Paris, and that is a city, like New York, that I know well. I felt comfortable placing these characters in that milieu and background. I’ve had 30 years of experience in Paris. I’ve had relationships, breakups, sex, and I’ve cried in Paris. It is a place that I feel at home in. If a film works, it’s very specific to a place. But it could happen anywhere, because the human qualities are translatable. That doesn’t mean every story is universal, but what happens between individuals tends to be somewhat universal. It is less about the distinction of place, and more about the distinction of age. That these are three characters in their 20s and 30s is significant. This is the first film in which shame is not an issue in any way, shape, or form. No shame is experienced by any of these characters. And that’s progress — because my films before I was 40 were all about shame. Each of them could have been called “Shame,” but that isn’t the case with this one. 

“Passages” | Directed by Ira Sachs | Opening Aug. 4 at the IFC Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center | Distributed by MUBI